Monday, November 26, 2012

Coney Island: a month after Sandy, still in need

 By Barbara J. Miner

Having lived almost 10 years in New York City, much of it in Brooklyn, I’ve always had a soft spot for Coney Island. So when my daughter suggested that the day after our Thanksgiving dinner in New York City we volunteer at a Coney Island relief site, I was willing. Somewhat ambivalent, but wholeheartedly willing.

The New York Times, as part of its Hurricane Sandy coverage, has had several articles and letters-to-the-editors on the social complexities of relief efforts. At what point, for instance, might volunteer efforts do more to assuage the guilt of the volunteer than to help those in need? What is the best way for people of privilege to become involved without exacerbating long-standing race and class divisions?

There are no easy answers. At the same time, such questions are not a rationale to do nothing. So on Friday morning, my husband Bob and my daughter Caitlin and I got on the B train and rode to its final stop at Coney Island and Stillwell Avenue at the southern tip of Brooklyn.

I knew that the Rockaways beach community in Queens had been devastated by Sandy’s trifecta of water, wind and fire. But I was unprepared for the still-momentous devastation on Coney Island almost a month after Sandy’s fury had abated.

We were volunteering at a food and donation distribution center at Coney Island Gospel Assembly — one of about 10 relief sites within the ConeyRecovers network.

Pastor Connie, head of Coney Island Gospel Assembly

Coney Island is known most famously for its amusement park and boardwalk, but its prime was almost a half-century ago. (A former barrier island, Coney Island became connected to the mainland via land fill.) Today, the Coney Island neighborhood is home to about 60,000 people, about 45 percent of whom live at or below the poverty level. Some 20 percent of its residents are African American, 28 percent are Latino, 24 percent are white, and 15 percent are Asian.

Some 23 days after Sandy hit shore, a number of buildings in the area remain only marginally habitable. Most first floors are filled with mold and rotting wood; some second floors are not much better. Forget about basement-level living areas. Those with the necessary resources and inclination are gutting their homes and rebuilding. Many are not sure what their future holds, and the necessities of life are in short supply.

A home along Neptune Avenue, as owners try to salvage what they can.

A basement level home, now abandoned.

Mold — an ever present problem in hurricane-ravaged homes.

Our volunteer location, Coney Island Gospel Assembly, is on a corner lot. After the hurricane, its location was ideal as a center for free hot food, medical assistance, and disbursement of donations of clothing, food, toiletries, cleaning supplies and bottled water. The parking lot became an outdoor warehouse; areas near the street became centers for social services and hot meals.

The backbone of the volunteer efforts consisted of church-based volunteers, Americorps members from throughout the country who were staying at a union hall in Queens, and local organizations such as the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able initiative that is a transitional work program for those with a history of homelessness or substance abuse. They are there for the long haul.

The long-term volunteers and residents of Coney Island deserve a few words and photos in a far-away newspaper in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They should know that they are not forgotten.
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For more information on relief efforts in the Coney Island area, go to ConeyRecovers, an initiative of the non-profit Alliance for Coney Island.

Workers from Ready, Willing & Able organize donations.

Many of which arrive at random times and in random quantities.

Neighborhood residents wait in line — for hours —  for the church to begin distributing necessities.

After three hours of organizing boxes, the pastor's son, Jack, is able to explain to volunteers how the distribution line 
will be organized.

The distribution begins and residents explain what they need most — whether diapers, bottled water, food or toiletries.

Knowing it may be a long walk home, residents come prepared with the carts that are now ubiquitous throughout the neighborhood.

A young man whose tattoo stands for "clarity of focus" and which, he says, helps him understand what's important in life.

As we walk back to the subway, we traverse mounds of sand that, during the hurricane, traveled a mile-and-a-half from the beach and settled in homes and on sidewalks.

We travel back to Manhattan. Coney Island residents continue with their lives.

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